Sunday, December 30, 2007

Some Schaberg Money Quotes

Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from Jane Schaberg's book, "The Illegitimacy of Jesus."

The virgin betrothed and seduced or raped is, in the great Matthean paradox, the virgin who conceives and bears the child they will call Emmanuel. His origin is ignominious and tragic. But Matthew's point is that his existence is divinely willed and even predicted. That although-- or even because-- he was born in that way, the claim of his messiahship was not thereby negated. It was, rather, in some strange way strengthened...

The wording in which the conception story survives is, as Vermes says, "when scrutinized closely, curious and equivocal." That is due, I think, not to the desire to be enigmatic, nor to the theological stress and strain of presenting a novel notion of divine begetting without human paternity... It is due rather to something I judge harder: the effort to be honest, delicate and profound, in dealing with material that resisted-- and still resists-- in great part the theologians' arts and tools: the siding of God with the endangered woman and child.
[pp 72-73]

In my blog-reading leading up to Christmas I came across an interesting discussion of the question of whether Mary and Joseph were married at the time Jesus was born. One blogger was insistent that Mary was not an "unwed mother" and couldn't understand why some (she accused them of being Protestants) seemed to take a 'perverse' delight in labeling her so. I think the blogger probably didn't have an understanding of the ancient Palestinian Jewish customs of betrothal and marriage, in which betrothal was covenantally akin to being married, the only feature lacking being the "home-taking" of the bride by the groom. I have never been much perturbed by Mary's status one way or the other, wed or unwed, virgin or no. I realize many folks seem to have a lot invested in the notion of the virgin birth, and I don't doubt God could have done it that way if God had so desired-- perhaps that is exactly what happened. I have always felt that, once one is willing to posit a supreme being, God, that all the rest is pretty easy to go along with. If there is a God, I have no doubt God can perform any miracle at all.

But something in me resonates with Schaberg's analysis, and I think the upset blogger has helped me pinpoint just what it is. The more fully fleshed out Mary's "low estate" (the word thus translated in the Magnificat more typically means "humiliation"), the greater God's salvific action. If Schaberg's thesis is correct, and in Mary we have the stunning story of reversal described above (a woman raped/ traumatized is redeemed by God's intention to make of this child God's own son in an unprecedented way), then the glorious work of God is that much more glorious. If Mary is an unwed mother, God's mercy is that much more vividly displayed. If God chooses for the messiah to come of this "ignominious" origin, we have all the more evidence of God's love for and solidarity with the "least" of humanity. All the more reason for Hallelujah's, Hosanna's and Gloria's.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Mothers and Others

Today's lectionary readings were heavy on images of motherhood and children, especially the readings from Isaiah:

"Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you." (Isaiah 49:15)

That is, it must be admitted, a double-edged image of motherhood. But is there any other kind? I have been reading and thinking about the infancy narratives in the gospels, and I have been struck at the ambiguity and sense of unease one finds there. In Matthew, for example, Mary is utterly silent, a non-actor, only acted-upon by the actions of others (including God). In her book, "The Illegitimacy of Jesus," Jane Schaberg investigates the silences as well as the words, the actions as well as the inactions of every character, and she concludes that the pregnancy in question may well have been a result of trauma, even rape, and the actions of Joseph find their rationale and precedent in the rabbinic writings of the period and earlier. I continue to be struck, here and elsewhere, by the "otherness" of woman, especially as manifested in the need to manage her reproduction, messy and unpredictable as that tends to be. I do not mean to minimize or trivialize the question at hand: what was the nature of Mary's conception and pregnancy? Lives have been spent (and lost) puzzling over the question. It is significant.

At the same time it is timeless, and universal. A woman conceives, and entire worlds come into conflict... the rabbinic world, the world of a womb and its cycles, the world of a family and its peculiar economy, the world of a small town. Everyone takes an interest, because everyone has an interest.

I am fascinated that we still care. I am fascinated that we all still feel we have a stake in the answers.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

It Was Good

All of it.

Christmas Eve at my church, sweet and rich and full of color and light and beautiful music and, I hope, real wonder.

Returning home after church without my children, who spent the night with their father, but to my Beloved, who waited for me. I cooked. She has this thing about me cooking. It's good.

We opened a bottle of 1999 Cakebread Cellars Benchland Select Cabernet Sauvignon, a gift to her from a friend. It was astonishingly good. We opened just one or two gifts. She loved hers so much that she asked that we enjoy it right away (the DVD of "La Vie En Rose," a harshly beautiful film about Edith Piaf). That kept us up until about 3 AM.

On Christmas day we awakened, exchanged gifts, and then waited for my children to return. They did. And we enjoyed together a meal of my mother's recipe for spaghetti sauce, meatballs and garlic toast. While it simmered we watched "While You Were Sleeping," a favorite Christmas movie and one of my daughter's gifts.

Chocolate cake with ice cream completed our meal. We finished off the Cabernet, watched the lights on the tree glowing. It was a good, good day. God has most generously filled my life with love and joy.

Merry Christmas to all of you.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A Hard Season

Friends, this has been a hard Advent season for Beloved and me. The ghosts of our pasts are out in full force, haunting our relationship in ways that keep startling me. I never know which poltergeist I might find breathing its icy breath in some unexpected corner.

Part of it, I know, is the stress of the season. The church and commerce have this in common: this is, in many ways, our make or break season. I sit in my darkened living room, watching my tree, and I know that in a few brief hours I'll be presiding and preaching over the once chance some folks will give me to be their pastor. It's an uncomfortable feeling: I have this one shot, and that's it. I know that's not an accurate reflection of ministry, but today, that's how it feels.

We said goodbye to P. this weekend. After so many years, not simply of health, but of truly thriving, her loved ones experienced these last months as a violence, and so they were. P. never truly recovered from a sudden illness that took much of her strength. Probably she was well aware that she would not be able to go home again. That was a huge loss to her. As we mourned her together in the congregation, friend after friend told me stories of her: her wit, her intelligence, the way in which she enriched every life; her gift for hospitality. So many people hang on until after the holidays: I wonder whether P. couldn't face the holiday away from her beloved home.

After tonight's service I will come home to Beloved, and I will make a dinner for us. We will both have put down the enormous burdens of this particular season, work-wise. I pray we will be able to lift a glass to the joy of coming home to one another.

If we make it through December
Everythings gonna be all right I know
It's the coldest time of winter
And I shivver when I see the fallin snow

If we make it through December
I got plans of bein in a warmer town come summer time
Maybe even California
If we make it through December we'll be fine

I got laid off down at the factory
And there timings not the greatest in the world
Heaven knows I been workin' hard
I wanted Christmas to be right for daddy's girl
Now I don't mean to hate December
It's meant to be the happy time of year
And why my little girl don't understand
Why daddy can't afford no Christmas here

If we make it through December
Everythings gonna be alright I know
It's the coldest time of winter
And I shivver when I see the fallin' snow

If we make it through December
I got plans of bein' in a warmer town come summer time
Maybe even California
If we make it through December we'll be fine

~ Merle Haggard

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Rebel Jesus

By Jackson Browne, from "The Bells of Dublin" by the Chieftains and Friends. May I please, please preach this on Christmas eve? Please?

All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
As the sky darkens and freezes
Theyll be gathering around the hearths and tales
Giving thanks for all gods graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

Well they call him by the prince of peace
And they call him by the savior
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
As they fill his churches with their pride and gold
And their faith in him increases
But they've turned the nature that I worshiped in
From a temple to a robbers den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

But please forgive me if I seem
To take the tone of judgment
For I've no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In this life of hardship and of earthly toil
We have need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus.

Monday, December 17, 2007


My tree is up.

It is hard for me to convey how happy this makes me. I want to sleep by it, so that I can see it when first I open my eyes. I want to lie beneath it so that I can smell the pine (yes, I have a freshly cut tree. For some reason yet to be discerned I like to keep the stumps I cut from the bottom... the stump of Jesse perhaps?). I want to play nothing but Christmas music, or music I can interpret Christmasly-- my own sly mixes such as the following:

O Come O Come Emmanuel, sung by Sufjan Stevens
You Can't Always Get What You Want, by the Rolling Stones
Christmas Time is Here, sung by Diane Reeves
Winter Hunter, by Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter
Christmas In America, by Melissa Etheridge
Diamond in the Rough, by Shawn Colvin
Greensleeves, by Cyrus Chestnut and Friends
Ginger Bread Boy, by Bobby Watson
River, by Joni Mitchell
Christmas in Washington, by Joan Baez
The Christians and the Pagans, by Dar Williams
Silver Bells, played by Aaron Neville
After the Gold Rush, sung by k.d. lang
All That We Let In, by the Indigo Girls
Planctus Pellegrin, by Therese Schroeder-Sheker
Il Est NĂ©, le Divin Enfant, by Dave Koz
If We Make it Through December, sung by Holly Cole
Let it Snow, sung by Michael Franks
What is this Fragrance, sung by Holly Cole

OK, maybe not so sly. But it means the good part of the season to me. This beautiful tree, that makes me not want to leave its side. A tiny foretaste of the light in the darkness.

Another Poem for Advent

Dedicated to the memory of Karen Silkwood and Eliot Gralla

“From too much love of living,
Hope and desire set free,
Even the weariest river
Winds somewhere to the sea—“

But we have only begun
To love the earth.

We have only begun
To imagine the fullness of life.

How could we tire of hope?
—so much is in bud.

How can desire fail?
—we have only begun

to imagine justice and mercy,
only begun to envision

how it might be
to live as siblings with beast and flower,
not as oppressors.

Surely our river
cannot already be hastening
into the sea of nonbeing?

Surely it cannot
drag, in the silt,
all that is innocent?

Not yet, not yet—
there is too much broken
that must be mended,

too much hurt we have done to each other
that cannot yet be forgiven.

We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture,

so much is in bud.

~ Denise Levertov

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Advent Blues

I love this time of year. I love it when it is dark early, and you can see all the lights go on in the houses... it speaks of cosiness to me. And I love the Advent season in particular. I love lighting the Advent candles, and sitting quietly.

But I am in a funk, and I'm not sure why. I am having a difficult time working... the administrative tasks that every pastor has are piling up, and I don't have the energy, most days, to tackle them. I feel that, generally, things are good in my ministry, in my church, but I am feeling somewhat fraudulent. And I don't mean about the closeted stuff (although I recognize that is always a subtext, always there beneath the surface of consciousness).

When I look at my calendar and see that I worked more than 50 hours each of the last two weeks, with no clear day off, I think, Well, isn't that the deal for all ministers at this time of year? In fact, isn't 50 hours kind of low? Yesterday I took a snow day with my daughter, and I wrote my sermon for Sunday, as well as doing a lot of emailing about this and that committee and this and that project... not really a day off, but also not a day on which I showed up at the office. Reading about a local fatal accident on the road I take to work seems to bolster that as a good decision. But at the end of the day I was left feeling that I hadn't done my work, that I was just kind of... getting by.

And... I haven't seen Beloved since Tuesday, when I took an hour after a meeting near her place of business to stop in and have lunch with her. I am not the sort who needs to be with the object of her affection 24/7 in order to feel ok (any longer... used to be). But I do feel out of sorts when life just spirals us away from one another's orbits. Time of year. Check.

And the daily lectionary readings are just... a downer.

"You looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away." ~ Haggai 1:9

This too shall pass away. And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. But today I have the Advent blues.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007



‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos
Hymn, Greece, VIc

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.


Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.


She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, 'How can this be?'
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

~ Denise Levertov

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

For The Bible Tells Me So

Beloved and I took a road trip to see this film last weekend. If you click on the link, the opening page gives a beautiful sense of what the movie is about: old family photos appear and fade, blending into one another. And that's what the movie is about. Families. Families who happen to have a gay or lesbian individual as a member. Two of the families are very much in the public eye: that of Gene Robinson, Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, and that of Chrissy Gephardt, whose father Dick was a presidential candidate in 2004. The rest of the families are people known mostly to their friends and neighbors. All are churchgoers. Some are ministers of the gospel. Some are now activists. One mother's activism is in memory of the gay daughter who committed suicide.

Beloved and I sat transfixed for the full two hours of the film. I wept numerous times. I felt like jumping up and cheering at others. For the long ride home we couldn't stop talking about it. Every family's story was its own. Every parent reacted in their own unique way to the news. One of the moments that made me heartsick was when the sweet, grandmotherly face of Gene Robinson's mother was held in closeup, and she said, "I was afraid they would kill him," in her soft Missouri twang.

Please. Please see this film.

Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so
Little ones to him belong
They are weak and he is strong
Yes, Jesus loves me
Yes, Jesus loves me
Yes, Jesus loves me
The Bible tells me so

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Precious Body of Christ

The second day of Advent yesterday, and our plans to do home communions all shot to hell thanks to the monster snow and ice storm that stretched across half the country. But for our own reasons we decided to take P. communion, in the bluster and snow and ice. She greeted us with bright eyes... they brightest they've been in weeks. We spoke for a few moments, and she shared with us about some visitors she'd had earlier in the day, and her recollection was perfect (there's a sign in sheet). I read from Isaiah, and we shared communion.

While chewing the bread, P. struggled a bit. A small morsel... the size of a dime, maybe... fell out of her mouth and onto her dressing gown. I picked it up with a Kleenex and put it in my pocket.

Later, at the church for a meeting, I found the tissue. I didn't want to throw it away. I looked at the small bit of bread that had fallen out of P.'s mouth, and it felt sacred. I'm not of a tradition with a high Eucharistic theology, but I do have great reverence for the sacrament. I should say, I'm in awe of it. I believe it is beyond our comprehension, and we stand in the middle of deep mystery every time we celebrate it. I could not throw this piece of bread, which was not only our communion in the body of Christ, but also was a part of P., even through she couldn't swallow it. Her mouth had held it; she had chewed it; it had briefly been a part of her fragile body. Finally, after a few moments, I stepped out into the swirling snow. I found a place beneath the bushes where the squirrels often shelter. I left it there for them.